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FBI investigates mysterious death in Davidson Co. Jail

by Jordan Green

The FBI has launched an investigation into the death of a Honduran immigrant who died after a struggle with detention officers in the Davidson County Jail, a facility run by a sheriff’s office with a troubled history of corruption, arbitrary punishment and brutality.

Carlos Claros-Castro, a 28-year-old resident of Thomasville who worked at Elizabeth’s Pizza, was pronounced dead shortly after his arrival at Lexington Memorial Hospital on the evening of Saturday, Jan. 7, said hospital spokeswoman Kathy Sushereba. He had spent more than 40 hours in jail after an alcohol-related auto accident. Parts of those two days seem to have been marked by uncooperative behavior and difficulties with other inmates, according to records provided by the sheriff’s office.

The details of other moments of Claros-Castro’s stay in the county lockup remain unclear; those are the subject of an inquiry by the State Bureau of Investigation and the FBI probe.

Richard Summers, an Atlanta lawyer hired by family members in Honduras to investigate the cause of the Claros-Castro’s death, said he viewed the inmate’s body at the Office of the Medical Examiner in Chapel Hill. Photos of the man’s corpse published in the newspaper Que Pasa Piedmont on Jan. 19 matched Summers’ description.

‘“In one word, it would be ‘horrific, terrible, saddening,”” Summers said. ‘“I used the word ‘debilitating.’ There were extensive bruises, wounds, cuts, burn marks on various parts of his body, but mostly his head, arms, back, chest ‘— basically the whole body.

‘“What degree of force was used to ‘control’ this man?’” the lawyer asked. ‘“Where did those injuries come from? There will be two separate autopsies: one by the state, and one I’ve requested. We don’t have the autopsy results yet.’”

Sheriff David Grice could shed little light on those questions.

‘“Originally, officers were called to his cell because he was out of control,’” the sheriff said. ‘“He had a mop and he was beating that against the walls.’”

Grice would provide no other details about the beating on the grounds that it could impede the various investigations. Noelle Talley, spokeswoman for the NC Department of Justice, said the State Bureau of Investigation could likewise provide no information about the incident until its investigation was complete. Grice said two officers involved in the beating were placed on administrative leave on the day of Claros-Castro’s death and returned to work in a clerical capacity on Jan. 16. He said the Sheriff’s Office is conducting its own investigation to determine whether the two jailers used justifiable force.

Aside from the focus on the conduct of the two detention officers, Grice indicated that the jail might not be institutionally equipped to handle individuals in an emotionally disturbed state. Ideally, the jail should have five or six officers on call who are trained to handle difficult inmates, he said.

‘“The emergency response unit was not active because we’ve had several people turn over,’” Grice said. ‘“We’re trying to get that reactivated, using line officers and jail officers. That’s the nature of jail work: it’s not desirable.’”

An accident report, an arrest report and an ‘Officer’s Use of Force Report’ together provide the only account of the last two days of Carlos Claros-Castro’s life.

An accident report completed by Thomasville police officer SM Shoemaker indicates that Claros-Castro ran a red light in a 1997 green Nissan traveling south on Liberty Drive in the general direction of Interstate 85 around 1:30 in the morning of Jan. 6. He drove off the road, struck a cinderblock wall and drove through a flowerbed. Then Claros-Castro got out of his car and climbed into a Chevrolet Cavalier driven by his friend, Lazaro Lauro. When he stopped the two men a couple blocks away Shoemaker found multiple violations for which to charge and arrest them. For Lauro: driving without license and registration and aiding and abetting a hit and run. For Claros-Castro: driving while intoxicated, hit and run, and speeding.

Both men were taken to the Davidson County Jail in Lexington and held on $1,000 bond.

Sheriff Grice said Claros-Castro entered the county jail at about 4 a.m. that Friday. Three and a half hours later an Officer’s Use of Force Report suggests that the inmate spent much of the morning making life difficult for his jailers and the other inmates. The time of the incident is listed as approximately 7:30 that morning.

‘“I was advised by officers that inmate had been told twice to keep his clothes on, that he could not walk around the pod naked,’” states the report, which was provided to YES! Weekly by the Sheriff’s Office with the names of the officers blacked out. ‘“He closed his mouth and began blowing snot from his nose. Officer [___] then handcuffed inmate and he was escorted to the restraint chair. After removing inmate from the chair at approximately 11 a.m. I advised Officer [___] to place inmate in Pod 33 on lockdown. He had urinated in the shower in the N-Pod and other inmates were upset.’”

Grice said the Sheriff’s Office could not release a second Officer’s Use of Force Report that describes the struggle that led to Claros-Castro’s death because it is the subject of the State Bureau of Investigation’s probe. He suggested the state agency might provide it; those efforts also proved unsuccessful.

Talley said the State Bureau of Investigation plans to put together a report based on interviews with Sheriff’s Office personnel and autopsy results. The report will be delivered to Garry Franks, the district attorney for Davidson County, who said he will review it to determine whether to launch criminal prosecutions.

Ken Lucas, spokesman for the FBI’s Charlotte field office, said the federal agency started looking into the jailhouse death on Jan. 18.

‘“The FBI is conducting a preliminary inquiry into the allegations of excessive force,’” he said. ‘“That’s all we’re looking into. Not the whole detention, procedures and techniques. The special agent at the State Bureau of Investigation in Greensboro saw this case, thought it was of interest and value to the FBI and we decided to at least do a preliminary inquiry.’”

While federal and state law enforcement decide whether to press criminal charges against individual officers, Summers said his own investigation will determine whether he pursues civil remedies by suing the Sheriff’s Office for wrongful death or civil rights violations.

Summers said Claros-Castro was buried in his hometown of Santa Lucia, in Honduras, in late January. Claros-Castro has a brother living in the Triad, but the lawyer said the brother could not be interviewed without representation.

If detention officers were charged in Claros-Castro’s death, it would set a precedent in Frank’s district.

‘“I have had several death-in-custody investigations,’” the district attorney said. ‘“Every case’s determination rises and falls on its own facts. I’m not aware of any that have resulted in criminal charges. I’ve had numerous complaints about all the jails in all four counties.’”

Those include facilities run by the sheriff’s departments in Davidson, Davie, Iredell and Alexander counties as well as three state penitentiaries: Davidson Correctional Institution, Alexander Correctional Institution and North Piedmont Correctional Center for Women.

At least two other inmate deaths at Davidson County Jail have taken place under Sheriff Grice’s watch. The Winston-Salem Journal reported that 46-year-old Distalee Meade Hernandez died of pneumonia while in the custody of the Davidson County Jail in June 2005.

Grice recalled another death taking place around the same time.

‘“We had one individual incarcerated last summer that was 54 years old,’” he said. ‘“He was brought in for shoplifting in Thomasville. He had cocaine in his system. He had a stroke and died.’”

A search of news archives also found a report of an inmate death at Davidson County Jail in September 2002. The Greensboro News & Record reported that Saure Ortez Turner died of an apparent suicide. That was during the administration of Gerald Hege, a sheriff whose flamboyant and controversial tenure gained the county widespread attention.

Hege, who was notorious for painting the cells of his jail in an emasculating shade of pink and outfitting his office like a military bunker, resigned in May 2004 after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice. It is widely reported that three of Hege’s vice-narcotics deputies were arrested in 2001 and subsequently pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute drugs; charges against dozens of defendants were dropped because the three deputies had handled evidence in their cases. Allegations of inmate abuse at Davidson County Jail were also widespread during Hege’s time in office.

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com

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